Jonah’s Backstory

Jonah 3.1–5, 10
Mark 1.14–20

The LORD is nothing if not persistent, always ready to begin again. But this time things should be different. For Jonah is not just starting over again; he has been given a new life out of the depths of Sheol, like Israel freed from exile in Babylon, like a man buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life. The second half of the book of Jonah tells the story of one reborn from the dead. — Phillip Cary, Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Kindle Locations 2279-2282). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Often, I find when I’m at the funeral of an older person that they had a very interesting backstory over their long life. I think, I wish I’d known about that before. I would have loved to have heard more about that!

But it’s too late.

People are much more interesting when you know their backstory. All you have to do is ask questions! It’s a great way to get to know someone.

We have two stories of people called to God’s service today: Jonah the runaway prophet; and the disciples Simon and Andrew, James and John.

People sometimes try to invent a backstory for the four disciples, to explain why they followed Jesus so immediately. They must have met Jesus at some earlier time. But Mark gives us nothing.  Mark wants us to see that the power of Jesus’ call summons them away from their boats and their nets, and into a new life. It’s almost as if  the word of Jesus has recreated them.

But today, I want to look more at the main character, Jonah, and his backstory. Jonah is my all-time favourite book of the Bible. It’s only four chapters long, and only forty eight verses. Read it when you get home—it’s far more than a story about a prophet who had a whale of a time. No, the Book of Jonah is a hilarious satire on those who can’t keep up with God; specifically, God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people.

We meet Jonah today in chapter 3 of the book, striding into Nineveh as an Old Testament hero. But Jonah wasn’t always like that. The Book of Jonah is the story of a very reluctant prophet, and not a hero at all.

Jonah flees to Tarshish when God calls him to speak out against Nineveh. Nineveh was the superpower of the time; it was a bit like God saying to me, ‘Ok Paul, I want you to go to North Korea and tell Kim Jong Un to change his ways’. I’d be off in a flash, somewhere the back of Bourke.

Tarshish was a ‘back of Bourke’ kind of place. We don’t know where it was, probably in the south of Spain, but it was as far away from Israel as Jonah could imagine. God can’t reach me there, he thought.

We all know how the story goes. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days and three nights he is thrown up. While in the fish, he has time to sing a psalm.

After that, God calls him to go to Nineveh again. This is when we meet Jonah today, as he begins to cooperate with God.

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The Body is Basic

1 Corinthians 6.12–20

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

Psalm 139.13–16


I recall having a moment of conversion as a young man. Not conversion to Christ, that happened earlier when I was fourteen. This was another moment of conversion, one of several others.

This moment of conversion came about from reading the Bible. (If you want a safe, comfortable life, don’t read the Bible!). But it was too late for me. I was already reading it.

This moment of conversion was about what the word ‘you’ means.

You might wonder what I mean. You means you means you. But it doesn’t.

Sometimes, ‘you’ means one person. Sometimes, it means more than one person. Some Aussies say ‘youse’ when they mean more than one person. We say that it’s bad English. But it’s great communication. I wish it were good English—I’d love to use youse. So I think I shall. I hope youse won’t mind.

Let’s look at our 1 Corinthians reading with this in mind.

Someone will say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’. Yes; but not everything is good for you. I could say that I am allowed to do anything, but I am not going to let anything make me its slave.

Paul is setting up a kind of imaginary conversation here. It was a well-known way of discussing an issue. So:

I am allowed to do anything.

Interestingly, Paul says Yes but:

Yes; but not everything is good for you.

Paul might surprise us here.

I’m a Christian, and a Christian is free from all condemnation. I can do what I like.

Paul says Yes but.

I can smoke, I can drink to excess.

Paul says Yes but. And Paul says something we all know about: “I am not going to let anything make me its slave”. We all know the addictive power of so many things, from alcohol and cigarettes and gambling to smart phones and sex. Paul says

I am allowed to do anything, but I am not going to let anything make me its slave.

So we can do things because we are free, only to be enslaved or addicted.

There was an Exclusive Brethren leader who thought the men of the church should show their freedom by drinking a glass of whisky. So they did. Each evening. Whether they liked it or not. Because they were told they must. To show how free they were.

Let’s go to verse 13. I’m going to change where the quotation marks go here. It will make more sense:

Someone else will say, ‘Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food. … but God will put an end to both’.

Then Paul replies:

The body is not to be used for sexual immorality, but to serve the Lord; and the Lord provides for the body. God raised the Lord from death, and he will also raise us by his power.

The ancient world was a very different place. Men were able to satisfy their sexual urges outside of marriage without any criticism. They could go to a brothel, or proposition a slave who would have no choice but to comply.

When they became Christians, some of them thought that could continue in this way. And why not?—remember, ‘I am allowed to do anything’.

And anyway, they reasoned, the body was going to end one day. It didn’t matter all that much.

To which Paul says, the body is for the Lord and, more than that, God is going to raise us from death just as he raised the Lord Jesus. Bodies matter.

Later (chapter 15), Paul says that in the resurrection this body will become a spiritual body, a body which gives some kind of form to the spirit. It won’t be this body, just as the risen Jesus wasn’t just a corpse with the life pumped back in. Even so, the body is basic. Paul says it’s like a seed that will blossom into something beautiful. The body is important, and what we do with it matters.

Paul goes on:

You know that your bodies are parts of the Body of Christ.

Note the capital ‘B’. This is the letter, 1 Corinthians, in which Paul teaches about the Body of Christ.

The church—including me and youse—is the Body of Christ. That means we, youse and I, are intimately joined to Jesus—as closely knit to him as the parts of our own body are to us. I can’t detach my hand or my eye; they are part of me. And we are parts of Christ’s Body. So, our bodies are parts of the Body of Christ.

Paul is saying We can’t just do what we want, even if we are free to do what we want. Whatever we do affects the rest of the Body.

That is how truly we are connected in Christ. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ. We can’t follow Jesus and ignore the rest of his Body.

The body matters. Our bodies, and the Body of Christ.

In all of this, Paul is laying the groundwork for talking about the Body of Christ later in this letter. In chapter 11.12, he will say

Christ is like a single body, which has many parts; it is still one body, even though it is made up of different parts.

So we can’t make decisions about what we do as though we are isolated from other people.

And this Body of Christ is not just this congregation, not even the Uniting Church in Australia. It is the church everywhere. During the week, the President of the USA used derogatory language to describe where some immigrants come from. But their bodies matter. How should we treat them as part of the Body of Christ? The Body is so much more than just us!

Soon, we’ll be sharing the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper together. We shall do that as one Body in Christ. We’ll pass the Peace of Christ to one another in preparation for this sacred Meal. Christ will come to us in this Meal, and draw us deeper into his heart.

That’s what it means to share this Meal. It’s not just ‘you and Jesus’, it’s youse and Jesus. It is us in Christ. It’s all of us all over the world in Christ.

We are the Body of Christ. Let us remember this in our daily life in the body God has given us. Amen.


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Were they so wise?

Matthew 2.1–12


What are you doing, O Magi? Do you adore a little Babe, in a wretched hovel, wrapped in miserable rags? Can this Child be truly God? … Are you become foolish, O Wise Men … Yes, these Wise Men have become fools that they may be wise. — St Bernard of Clairvaux, from a sermon on the Epiphany

Today, we come to the bit about the three wise men.

Of course, that’s an unbiblical thing to say. We always think ‘three wise men’ because three gifts are mentioned.

I have another reason for not wanting to speak of three wise men.

I’m not sure they were all that wise.

Matthew doesn’t say they were wise, did you know that? Matthew’s word for them was magoi. That’s our word magi. So let’s call them magi.

We know that word magi, it’s where we get our words magic and magician from.

Nonbiblical sources reveal that magi were associated primarily with Persia, where they were members of a priestly class learned in astrology and other magical arts, including divination, dream interpretation, and the concoction of potions.

Magi were often lampooned as deceivers or fools, so Matthew may well mean to show God’s gracious revelation to Gentile ‘experts’ in nonsense.

So the magi follow a star which they believe heralds the birth of a new king. Where do you go to find a king? To the palace.

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Christmas is the beginning…

Galatians 4.4–7
Luke 2.22–40


Simeon’s Passion prophecy becomes quite specific…the contradiction against the Son is also directed against the mother and it cuts her to the heart. For her, the Cross of radical contradiction becomes the sword that pierces her soul. From Mary we can learn that what true com-passion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the sufferings of others as one’s own. — Pope Benedict XVI

In 2015, my wife Karen and I went to Chile to visit our daughter Erin and her partner, Pablo. They live in a little town about an hour’s drive out of Santiago, the capital of Chile.

After we booked our flights, Erin announced that she was pregnant. She’d be about halfway through her pregnancy by the time we arrived. So that added an extra dimension to our journey.

A few days after we arrived, we went into Santiago to meet Pablo’s family. Pablo stopped the car on a side street, a mixture of houses and small office buildings. Erin told us that they had some business there and invited us to come up to the first-floor office they were going to.

It didn’t take us long to realise that we were in a radiologist’s place, and that Erin was having an ultrasound. Fair enough, I thought—she’s killing two birds with one stone, fitting the family get-together and the ultrasound into the same visit. We’d wait.

When it came time for Erin to go in, she waved us to come in too. It was a total surprise. When we saw this little human inside our daughter, Karen and I just fell in love with her. Oh yes, and we learnt that day that Erin was having a girl. Her name would be Emilia.

That was over two years ago now, and now Emilia is our Chilean–Australian granddaughter. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is growing up bilingual. She is learning Spanish and English words for things. In time, her brain will sort it all out and she’ll be fluent in both languages.

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The Year of the Lord’s Favour


Isaiah 61.1–4, 8–11

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. — Augustine, On Christian Theology

The entire Biblical Scripture is solely concerned that man understand that God is kind and gracious to him and that He has publicly exhibited and demonstrated this His kindness to the whole human race through Christ his Son. However, it comes to us and is received by faith alone, and is manifested and demonstrated by love for our neighbour. — First Helvetic Confession, 1536

You have heard that it was said … but I say to you … — Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought down its final report on Friday, after 4.5 years. The life of the churches has changed for good in the light of the Commission.

One survivor of child abuse said on Friday:

Care and compassion has already lifted tenfold. We need to make sure we keep people alive and in a good place, by making sure they’ve got the counselling care they need.

It has taken a royal commission to bring this care and compassion to this man, and no doubt to many others.

In our reading from Isaiah today, we heard these words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;…

I think we can see who are the oppressed, brokenhearted ones are in this situation. It is the children who have become adults with burdens that were never lifted from their backs.

Jesus once placed a child in the midst of his disciples. The story is in Matthew 18:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”

The disciples hanker after greatness; Jesus shows them what greatness is in God’s eyes.

To be great is to take the place of a child, to embrace humility, to serve others. There is no other way; this is the way of the cross.

Time and time again, we have seen that the way church leaders took is another way altogether. It has been to protect their church’s good name, to keep their mouths closed, to disbelieve what they were told. Or they can’t remember anything about it.

The end result has been to deny care and compassion to the children in their care.

Perhaps I should read the next verse in Matthew18:

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

It’s a grim warning.

The consequences for the churches are also grim. Many non-churchgoing Aussies have lost any faith they had in the church as a community in which the love of God is to be found. Our moral authority is at record lows.

What should be our response?

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Good News

Isaiah 40.1–11
Mark 1.1-8

The gospel here is not just Jesus (1:1), but also the gospel-of-God kingdom that Jesus himself proclaims (1:14-15) and its resultant faith/ repentance, too. — David Schnasa Jacobsen, Mark (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries)

Revivals are hindered when ministers and churches take the wrong stand in regard to any question involving human rights. — Charles Finney, Lectures on Revival


I heard the story once of a national Assembly meeting where some representatives were feeling introspective, but not in a constructive way. “What have we got to offer?” said the speaker.

The reply from someone in the cheap seats came: “What have we got to offer? What have we got to offer? Eternal bloody life, that’s what we’ve got to offer!”

We have wonderful good news to offer. I love the way Mark’s Gospel begins:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The grammar nazis among you will tell me that’s not a sentence because there’s no verb in it.

And I shall reply that’s because it’s not meant to be a sentence. It’s a title. And it’s best understood as the title to the whole of Mark’s Gospel. The title tells us that the whole Gospel of Mark is just the beginning of the story of Jesus; we are continuing that story today.

Perhaps we’re still at the beginning. Who knows? “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day”. (2 Peter 3.8) Maybe we’re still in the early days of the Church.

Perhaps we’re still learning how to get it right. Maybe we’re still learning how to speak of the good news of Christ into the world. Maybe we’re even having to learn whether some things are good news or bad news.

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Beam me up, Jesus? (12 November 2017, Year A)

1 Thessalonians 4.13–18
Matthew 25.1-13

…If Christian hope is reduced to the salvation of the soul in a heaven beyond death, it loses its power to renew life and change the world, and its flame is quenched. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God


When I was a young Christian, I was part of a church that believed in the Rapture. I heard about the Rapture often. Do you know what the Rapture is? It’s the belief that one day, Jesus will descend from heaven and take up all true Christians and take them back to heaven. Everyone else is ‘left behind’, and there will be a great time of suffering.

A lot of people have tried hard to predict when that will happen.

I’m not going to try to guess when it will be; mainly because the Bible doesn’t teach it. According to the Bible, there’s no such thing as the Rapture. In fact, it’s a very misleading idea. I hope I can show you that today.

There’s a common script that people assume when they talk about the second coming. The world will get worse and worse; Jesus will come and whisk all the believers up to heaven; and then the world gets even worse still. Then Jesus comes as an enforcer and ‘kicks ass’.

The passage we heard today from 1 Thessalonians is the proof text people use to teach the Rapture. We’ll look at it soon, but first let’s look at that phrase ‘second’ coming.

Do you know it’s not actually biblical? The Bible doesn’t mention the ‘second’ coming. The Bible simply speaks of the ‘coming’ of Jesus. The Greek word for ‘coming’ is parousia, which means ‘being alongside’ us. Jesus is coming all the time, because he is always coming alongside us. But there are times when he is alongside us in particular ways—and dare we hope that one day, he will be fully and completely ‘alongside’ the whole creation?

Jesus may be coming alongside us at every moment, but how? Our experience is often quite different: it’s the absence of Jesus, the absence of God. Our prayers are unanswered. Injustice reigns in the world. The church lets us down. We struggle, we may lose our faith and hope. God seems real at one time, and the next day our sense of God’s presence seems to evaporate.

But God has come alongside us in Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh; Jesus is risen within us, as we share his Spirit; and one day, our hope is that Jesus will be all in all to everyone. As we shall say in our Communion service soon:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

This is our proclamation to the world of the great new Event of Jesus Christ.

But what do we do in the meantime? Back in the 1500s, someone asked Martin Luther that very question. Luther answered like this: if he knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, he’d go out and plant a tree.

What did he mean? That seems a pretty earth-bound thing to do when time is so short. A bit longterm. Do we prepare for Jesus to come alongside us through working on very earthly things? That may be a new thought.

Recently—just back in September—some were saying that the second coming was upon us because of stars aligning and an imaginary planet coming close to the earth. It excited a few people.

If you believe these people, we should prepare for the coming of Jesus by throwing in our jobs, selling our homes, putting up billboards and giving them our money. Planting trees is not on their agenda.

Is there any biblical basis for saying that actively improving life here on earth is the way to prepare for Jesus? Yes there is, and some of it is here in today’s readings in Matthew and 1 Thessalonians.

Let’s look at 1 Thessalonians 4. I said this is a key passage for those who believe in the ‘Rapture’. Here, Paul writes:

the Lord himself…will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

So, according to the Rapture idea, Jesus will come in the air, believers will join him there and then whoosh!—Jesus hits the ‘air brakes’, turns around in mid air, and takes us off to heaven.

The problem is that’s a serious distortion of what this passage means.

Some of you will no doubt remember the old Star Trek series. Captain Kirk would be in a spot of bother on the surface of some planet, and he’d talk into his wireless receiver and say “Beam me up, Scotty!” And instantly, he’d dematerialise and then re-materialise back on the Starship Enterprise.

I think of the Rapture as a kind of Beam me up, Jesus thing which lifts us up into celestial certainty.

But that’s not what is pictured here.

Paul here is picturing Jesus as a VIP, a special or powerful person coming to town. It’s as if Caesar himself were coming to town. It’s like the Queen visiting Brisbane. Whenever she would visit, people would prepare. They swept the streets, mowed the grass in the parks and gave their teeth an extra floss. They made the place and they made themselves ‘fit for a queen’.

That’s how we prepare for the Queen; it’s how the people of the ancient world prepared for Caesar when he came; and it’s how we prepare the world for Jesus.

We prepare by doing what Jesus did: we work for peace, for healing, for life in all its fullness. We tell out the good news that Jesus is Lord, not the stock market, not political expediencies and not some celebrity culture. We make the world a better place, a place fit for the King of kings.

What happened when the Queen visited Brisbane a few years ago? Did she say to us all, I’m going to take you away from all this and whisk you off to Buckingham Palace? Of course not. She entered our city. She came to our place.

When we talk about the parousia of Jesus, one of the things we’re picturing is a world in which Jesus is the coming King. A world in which he enters our city and finds himself at home. When he entered Jerusalem 2000 years ago, he was rejected. And I fear the same would happen right now, today, in Washington, London, Berlin, Beijing, or Brisbane. The world would not receive him.

We as the Body of Christ are meant to be a people who are making themselves and their world fit for Jesus. People who are listening for the Spirit’s voice, and learning to follow Jesus.

So when Paul speaks of Jesus coming, he’s using a familiar picture. Indeed, the normal practice in the ancient world was that when a special or powerful visitor came to a town, the people of that place would come out beyond the boundary of their town to meet their guest. They would then turn back, and escort the VIP into their town.

That’s why Paul pictures us meeting Jesus in the air. Jesus comes down from heaven, which was above the sky for the people of the ancient world. So believers go out—up!—to meet him, and then they accompany him as he comes to earth. The way Paul pictures it, when Jesus comes even the dead greet him. His coming is so exciting, so all-transforming, that even they can’t keep still! The dead are also caught up into the air to meet him as he comes down, just as the living are!

This is quite different to the ‘beam me up Jesus’ picture. Jesus doesn’t stop in mid-air and turn back to heaven with all those who are saved. Jesus keeps coming; he comes down earth, to transform the earth.

And that’s what he calls us to do with him.

The question to us at Trinity Wellington Point is how we may do this. How do we make the world a better place, as we wait for the world to become the place in which God’s will is done? How do we use what we have been given?

As we engage with these questions, we prepare for Jesus. In terms of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, this is the oil we need: to keep focussed on the mission of God for the world today.

Beam me up Jesus? I don’t think so. There’s far too much to do down here.

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